It’s been two weeks since Operation Rio Grande began as an effort to reduce lawlessness around Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter.
There have been about 600 arrests. But as prosecutors file criminal charges against those people, will there be attorneys available to defend them?
Richard Mauro, the executive director of Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association (LDA), said Friday that since the arrests began, his office has slowly started to see an uptick in cases.
There are those who were arrested on warrants and already had public defenders, but they’ll need further representation if new charges are filed, he said. And there are others who will be new clients.
It’s too soon, he said, to know how many people will need taxpayer-funded representation.
It’s also too soon to know how much more it will cost his office — which is a nonprofit contracted by the county to represent indigent people charged in Salt Lake County.
Also unknown? Who will pay for it.
“It’s up in the air,” Mauro said Friday. “The unknown with this Operation Rio Grande is the increased cases. How much more of a caseload will there be?”
Anyone who is charged with a crime that includes the possibility of jail time — in Utah, that’s anything above an infraction — is entitled to an attorney, even if they can’t afford one. Utah is one of two states in the nation that delegates that responsibility to individual counties.
Salt Lake County contracts with the Legal Defenders Association and provides it funding from the county budget.
But county officials appear to be looking to the state to pick up the tab associated with Operation Rio Grande, and more financial estimates are expected to be released in the coming days.
Earlier this month, the county submitted a preliminary grant proposal to the state’s Indigent Defense Commission, a body created during the 2016 legislative session to oversee public defense services in the state and dole out $1.5 million in state grants to help counties cover costs.
The county’s proposal seeks about half of the commission’s allotted budget to pay to restructure its indigent defense services.
The proposal asks for between $670,000 and $900,000, with between $200,000 and $250,000 earmarked for an anticipated increase of public defender services because of Operation Rio Grande.
Karen Crompton, the county’s director of human services, said Friday that the county initially sought the Indigent Defense Commission money to pay for a conflicts administrator, who would handle hiring outside attorneys on cases in which there is a conflict with the Legal Defenders Association taking the case. But more recently, county officials expanded the request to include funding for Operation Rio Grande.
Mauro said he has submitted his own request to the county for additional funding for staffing needs, including for an attorney in a Operation Rio Grande-specific drug court, and is waiting to hear back.
The police action also is putting additional pressure on county and city prosecutors who must look at each case and decide what charges and services are appropriate.
Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill said prosecutors generally screen two groups of people. There are those who are in the Rio Grande area to ”party,” sell drugs and be exploitative — they’ll be ”prosecuted aggressively,” Gill said. And there are those who are drug addicted, have mental health issues and are homeless, and need treatment.
“For the short term, right now, we’re OK,” he said Friday, adding that he has reassigned a city and county prosecutor to handle the Operation Rio Grande cases.
If things continue as they have, Gill said he can probably keep up this caseload for a few more weeks without needing additional funding to hire more prosecutors. State officials say this will be a two-year push to clean up crime in the Rio Grande area, which he said really means a commitment of at least five years from his office — who will need to follow the criminal cases through until a defendant completes probation.
“This cannot be more than just an optic,” Gill said. “This has to be a long-term commitment from everybody.”
Crompton said county officials are working on their budget now and will “continue to evaluate impacts from Operation Rio Grande,” including public defenders, as well as other county services like the health department, which will provide cleanup, and others who provide treatment or expanded drug court services.
Joanna Landeau, the executive director of the Indigent Defense Commission, said this week that Salt Lake County has not yet filed an official grant application for the commission to consider. Once it does, the commission can decide what portion of state money, if any, should go to the county.
The Indigent Defense Commission has so far doled out just over $100,000 to Juab County to assist it in providing attorneys to indigent defendants. No other county or city has filed a grant application, as of this week, according to Landeau.
Besides more lawyers for Operation Rio Grande and a conflicts administrator, county officials say they want the remaining Indigent Defense Commission money to pay for a new case management system and building expansion for the LDA.